Sherlock Holmes - One but not the same?

How does the latest movie from 2009 depict Arthur Conan Doyle’s original detective? A comparison.

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

29 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction - Welcome to the World of Sherlock Holmes
1.1. The great detective of the literary world
1.2. The stories
1.2.1. A Study in Scarlet
1.2.2. The Adventure of the Speckled Band
1.2.3. A Scandal in Bohemia
1.3. Sherlock Holmes goes to the movies
1.4. The movie from 2009

2. One but not the same?
A Comparison between the stories and the movie
2.1. Sherlock Holmes’ outward appearance
2.2. Sherlock Holmes’ personality
2.3. Relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction - Welcome to the World of Sherlock Holmes

“Intriguing and memorable as some of the nineteenth-century detectives were, there is only one great detective” (Knight 2010: 55). When reading these few words everyone who is more or even less familiar with literature should know who these lines are dedicated to. The detective in question is of course Sherlock Holmes. This detective, who was brought to life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1886 (cf Weller 1992: 11), has defined nineteenth-century crime fiction in a remarkable way. This present paper is dedicated to this great figure of detection.

It is important to note, though, that Sherlock Holmes will not solely be dealt with as a literary figure but also as a movie character that has been embodied by several actors in over a hundred movies. This huge number of adaptations is a proof for the various interpretations one can apply when working with Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The most important and famous movies will be briefly discussed in section 1.3. Some of the screenplays relate very closely to Doyle’s stories and some show only marginal similarities to the literary original. However, this paper is mostly concerned with the latest film adaptation from the year 2009, titled Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie. This paper deals with the way the great detective is depicted in this modern movie. In what way did director Guy Ritchie take the stories from the nineteenth century as a guideline when creating his very own Sherlock Holmes embodied by Robert Downey Jr.? How much of the original great detective can be found in the film adaptation from 2009? These are the questions this papers aims at clarifying.

Firstly, Sherlock Holmes is to be introduced by describing his role in the literary world in general and the significance he has had for British crime fiction in particular. Following this introduction, three exemplary Sherlock Holmes stories will be presented, among them of course the adventure in which Holmes first occurred, namely “A Study in Scarlet” (cf Weller 1992: 11) After a short discussion of these three stories, and an outline as to how Sherlock Holmes is presented in these written works, the paper is turning its focus on the medium of film. The main focus lies on the comparison between the movie of 2009 and the stories by Doyle.

1.1. The great detective of the literary world

“It is impossible now to imagine crime fiction without immediately thinking of Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective is a global phenomenon” (Worthington 2010: 26).

No expert in the literary world will probably doubt the truth in this statement by Heather Worthington. However, commentators and scholars of several centuries have never stopped investigating why Sherlock Holmes was so incredibly successful and how he managed to become such a global phenomenon, especially when comparing him to other scientific detectives. Martin A. Kayman calls Doyle’s writing “ingenious” and praises the way the author “plays enough variation on the pattern to keep it constantly fresh” (Kayman 2003: 48), even though Holmes always sticks to his unique methods of deduction in every case.

Arthur Conan Doyle managed to create a series that, for the first time, turned “detective fiction [into an] indubitably popular and repeatable genre format” (Priestman 2003: 4). Suddenly, there was a sense to this type of fiction; the readership knew how to perceive the work, and the writer knew how to write so the public would find pleasure in it (ibid.). Actually, it was not until late 1880s, the time Arthur Conan Doyle produced his first Sherlock Holmes stories, that crime fiction reached “its first pinnacle of popularity” (Priestman 2003: 2). Additionally, not only did Doyle’s work make a tremendous difference in the development of crime fiction - he also helped bringing forward the role of the short story with the publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine (cf Kayman 2003: 41), starting with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891 (Barnes 2006: 284).

Doyle has a very fine technique of presenting his fictional work as real-life situations. He even uses intertextuality, blurring the borders of fact and fiction from time to time. In A Study in Scarlet for example, Watson compares Holmes to Dupin and Lecoq1 (cf Doyle, Sinclair 2001: 22) “treating them as really existing figures” (Kayman 2003: 42). Additionally, as Stephen Knight points out in one of his publications,

“Sherlock Holmes and the crimes he encounters are fictions: but the imaginative and ideological forces realized in the stories are real; in that respect Holmes is an archetype of the whole century’s crime fiction” (2010: 62).

Dupin was a detective created by Edgar Allen Poe and Lecoq was brought to life by the French writer Émile Gaboriau Sherlock Holmes’ working and living environment of nineteenth-century London has also influenced the way it is perceived from today’s perspective. It has “established itself as a stereotypical vision of Victorian London” (Kayman 2003: 43) and of course, Sidney Paget’s illustrations have also helped defining the picture (cf Neugebauer 1984- 85: 69).

“The stories were never seen as great literature by Doyle” (Weller 1992: 12) and in fact, Doyle did not even like his detective very much, at least after a good while. He decided to kill off the famous character, his very personal “nuisance” (Neugebauer 1984-85: 64) after having published 23 stories. In The Last Problem, published December 1893, Holmes dies when falling down the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (cf Neugebauer 1984-85: 64). However, the public persuaded Doyle to continue writing about the famous detective and in 1891 the author gave way, proceeded with writing more Holmes stories and published The Hound of Baskerville (Weller 1992: 13). Ironically, this was the year the “Holmes phenomenon reached an early peak, with queues forming outside the Strand Magazine offices in London on the monthly publication days” (ibid.). Three years later, Doyle was offered a deal to write thirteen new Holmesian short stories that were collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Critics say they are inferior to the stories published before. Stephen Knight states for example, “they are still witty, dense with detail and full of interesting ideas, but lack the street-level anxiety of the earlier stories” (2010: 62).

Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective have kept commentators busy for many years now, and be it the mystery about Watson’s wound or mistakes in the chronology of the stories - it seems there will always be something to talk about when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, because “[…] each generation finds something new to meet their own requirements in that Holmesian world which is ever the same, yet always new” (Weller 1992: 17).

1.2. The stories

In his career as an author, Arthur Conan Doyle has written four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes as the main character, the detective. The following sections will deal with three stories, one of them being a novel (A Study in Scarlet) and the other two being short stories. These three stories were chosen because they form a suitable cross section of Doyle’s work dealing with Sherlock Holmes and provide a framework of the detective that makes it easier to compare the written works with the film of 2009. The plots of the stories will briefly be discussed and it will be pointed out why the stories are of relevance when looking at “the Sacred Canon” (Dankin 1972: 7), as the collection of all Holmesian adventures is called.

1.2.1. A Study in Scarlet

This story is most definitely one of the most important stories because it is “the first story in the saga” (Dakin 1972: 9) and therefore introduces Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson and of course also “the methods by which Holmes works” (Weller 1992: 67). Philip Weller even goes as far as describing this case as “a magnificent introduction to all that is to follow” (ibid.). This story also reveals the relation between Holmes and Scotland Yard. The consulting detective does not take the inspectors quite seriously because they cannot keep up with his speed and method of deduction (cf Doyle, Sinclair 2001: 34). A Study in Scarlet was first published in Beeton ’ s Christmas Annual in 1887 (Dakin 1972: 9); and in the beginning, it was very hard for Doyle to actually sell the story and be successful with it. He had to accept various rejections before he finally found a publisher who was willing to buy his script (cf Weller 1992: 11).

A Study in Scarlet starts off by introducing Dr. John Watson as the narrator of the story. He just returned from the Anglo-Afghan war and needs a place to stay now. He can no longer work as a medical doctor because he is too depressed to work as a doctor after the things he has seen in the war. Additionally, he seems to have a gambling problem, which is why he is running out of money. With the help of his old friend Stamford he gets to meet Sherlock Holmes in January 1881 (cf Dakin 1972: 10), and the two men decide to split the rent for an apartment in 221B Baker Street. Watson is amazed by Holmes’ knowledge of chemistry and biology but fails to understand why he lacks knowledge in philosophy or politics. After a while, Watson learns that his roommate is a consulting detective (“Here in London, we have lots of Government [sic!] detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault, they come to me and I manage to put them on the right scent” (Doyle, Sinclair 2001: 21)), who solves his cases by using the means of deduction. Soon after the revelation, a Marine sergeant delivers a message from Scotland Yard to Sherlock Holmes about a murder that has taken place. A guy named Drebber was murdered in a room, showing no marks or wounds on his body. Holmes deduces that he was poisoned. On the wall of the room, the word Rache, which is German for revenge is written in blood. A ring is found near the body and Holmes puts an advert in the newspaper so the believed murderer would come to pick it up. An old lady comes to pick up the ring. Holmes follows her but she can escape, which leads Holmes to believe she is the murderer’s accomplice and really a young man in disguise. Shortly after that, Scotland Yard visits Holmes to tell him they have captured the murderer. While the inspector explains to Holmes how they found the culprit, a second murder occurs and proves Scotland Yard wrong. Drebbers secretary had been killed. Sherlock Holmes is still calm and positive, telling the two inspectors that the case will be solved soon. When a cab driver enters the room to pick Holmes up, supposedly for a trip, Holmes arrests the man as the murderer of Drebber and his secretary. This is what is told in Part I of the novel, Part II deals with the motives of the murderer, revenge for lost love.

This case is one of the rare ones where murder is the main crime. The story provides a lot of information about Sherlock Holmes’ outward appearance and the first main features of the relation between Holmes and Watson can be figured out, which is why A Study in Scarlet is of great importance for the comparison between written text and movie adaptation.

1.2.2. The Adventure of the Speckled Band

This story is considered as one of “Doyle’s finest work” by critics (Knight 2010: 59) and is actually the one case “which has most frequently been voted the best of the short Holmesian stories” (Weller 1992:77), among others also with the readers of the Observer (Doyle 1988: 262), so experts and laymen agree on that matter. It appeared first in The Strand Magazine in February 1892 (Weller 1992: 76) and commentators decided the adventure described must have taken place on April 4, 1883 Holmesian time (cf Dakin 1972: 75). The story is therefore “one of the earliest recorded adventures” (ibid).

The adventure is about Miss Helen Stoner who comes to consult Sherlock Holmes because of her choleric stepfather Dr. Grimesby Roylott. He had inherited a large sum of money from his wife, Helen’s mother, a couple of years ago and was to share this money with Helen and her twin sister Julia, once the two women got married. When Julia got engaged, she mysteriously died in her stepfather’s house. Before she passed away, she had told her twin sister something about a whistle she had been hearing a couple of nights in a row and had said something about “a speckled band”. This was about two years ago. Now Helen is about to get married as well, and because she has been hearing the whistle as well, she is scared to die, too. After Helen has left Holmes and Watson in Baker Street, her stepfather Dr. Roylott shows up and threatens the detective not to get involved in the matter. However, Holmes and Watson go to his premises and reveal Roylott’s secret: the doctor had brought a snake from one of his travels to India, a swamp adder2, which he had trained to crawl from one bedroom into another, kill its ‘victims’ - Roylott’s stepdaughters in this case - and then to crawl back to him when he blows a whistle. Holmes manages to drive the snake back into Roylott’s room, where it kills the man.

The story reveals that Holmes does not care about other people’s opinion (cf Weller 1992: 77) and he does not let himself get intimidated by people that appear stronger than him on first sight. He does not show any fear when Dr. Roylott comes to Baker Street 221B and threatens him and Watson (cf Doyle 1988: 251). This, among other features, is of course a very important aspect of Holmes’ personality, which will be closely looked at in the comparison section of this paper.

1.2.3. A Scandal in Bohemia

This story is set in March 1889 Holmesian time according to commentators and experts, even though Watson states something different in the beginning of the story (cf Dakin 1972: 38). In A Scandal in Bohemia Irene Adler is introduced, “the one woman that Holmes acknowledged to have outwitted him” (Dakin 1972: 41), which makes this adventure a very important one. Additionally, as mentioned before, this story was the first one beginning the series of the Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine in 1891 (Barnes 2006: 284).

In the beginning of the story, Sherlock Holmes receives an anonymous note which he determines to be from the King of Bohemia. Shortly after that, the King himself comes to Sherlock Holmes and asks the detective for a favor. The king’s former mistress and adventuress, Irene Adler, owns a photograph which might endanger the king’s upcoming marriage. She is blackmailing the king with this picture, and the royal wants Sherlock Holmes to get it back for him. Holmes starts to investigate on Irene Adler and accidentally becomes the best man at her wedding, when she hastily decides to marry a certain Godfrey Norton, a lawyer. Holmes later disguises himself to get access into Irene’s house. There, he carries out a trick plot together with Watson to find out where she keeps the photograph. When he returns to the house the next day together with Watson and the king, they have to reveal Irene Adler has already left the continent together with her husband. All they find is a note from her,

„ […] there is no such snake as a swamp adder“ (Weller 1992: 77)


Excerpt out of 29 pages


Sherlock Holmes - One but not the same?
How does the latest movie from 2009 depict Arthur Conan Doyle’s original detective? A comparison.
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie (IAAK))
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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sherlock, holmes, arthur, conan, doyle’s
Quote paper
Annika Witzel (Author), 2011, Sherlock Holmes - One but not the same?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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